Taíno Symposium – Session 2 – Jada Benn Torres


Well I will read that to you because you can’t read the letters. My name is Jada Benn Torres. I’m associate professor at Vanderbilt University. By training I’m a genetic anthropologist. The lab that I run again, again, you can’t see it in the black letters is the genetic anthropology and biocultural studies lab. For me, what I decided to call my lab and specifically the reference to biocultural is an indication of how important it is to me that we understand that as people we don’t live in one dimension or two dimensions but instead, our biologies, our cultures, they influence one another and that shapes the totality. So in my lab we sort of focus on things other than just the genetics. So I was charged with telling you a little bit about my research, and the way I’ll start that today with two stories that have been influential. This first one is from the Jamaican Gleaner. This is a newspaper in Jamaica. It was published in 2014 and I will read the quote. “When Erica Dennis of south of South Street in Elizabeth was in class at Hampton School in said parish Taínos in Jamaica were dead.” There, she was being told that she, a Jamaican Taíno, was extinct. Because she said at the time the students could not talk back to teachers, she kept quiet. Yet, she said she and another Taíno girl resisted by calling themselves ‘Taíno Girls’.” So I saw this and it moved me. This is a quote that I am sharing with you that came to me in an email in response to an article I wrote that’s published in, which you can see down here, in journal called Gene Watch. So this quote, “I am a Jamaican living in Jamaica. When I was a teen my father sought to explain the shape of my nose by telling me we have Arawak ancestry. I didn’t repeat it because school had already taught us that all Arawaks were wiped out by the Spanish. Now that I am older and taking note of my physical features and those of my father’s side plus engaging in some genealogy research, I have reason to believe that my father is right (despite with the history books say).” So as I mentioned, this was an email that I got from someone who saw some work I had done in Jamaica, which I talk about shortly. Both these anecdotes really bring home the point that we reach different stages in our life when we have to question what we’ve been taught, what we think we know. For me, studying DNA has allowed me to start questioning those things that I thought I knew. DNA gives us a new perspective to retell our stories in ways that are a little more appropriate to our own communities and our own interests. Okay so, my work. I created this on a Mac and there is always a little, little issues. My work is primarily in the English-speaking islands. That’s where I have done the bulk of my research. All those islands I have marked along eastern chain are places that I have worked with. Recently I did begin some work in Puerto Rico with Afro-Puerto Rican communities and that work is ongoing. In general, my interest has been using DNA to fill in the gaps in terms of what we know about Caribbean, in particular Afro-Caribbean history. Before ancestry companies were as big as they are now, I along with several other researchers at the time was interested in using DNA to figure out what places in Africa were sources for the folks that ended up throughout the Caribbean. So my graduate work I actually spent four months island hopping with my then new husband, doing work. NSF paid for my honeymoon essentially. As I did this work, not only did I learn about African ancestry, but I learned something that was never explained to me. I saw Indigenous ancestry as well within people who didn’t identify as Native. Instead, “I’m Afro-Caribbean or I’m Trinidadian or I’m Vincentian.” And that made me aware that hey, there is something missing. There is something worth studying. In collaboration with both Dr. Vilar and Dr. Schurr who are here, I have done some other work but specifically with communities that identify as Indigenous in the Lesser Antilles. I have done some work with the First People of Santa Rosa, First People’s Community who are located in Arima just sort of in the northern area of Trinidad. And I also have done some work with the Garifuna or Kalinago in Saint Vincent. There is a third area in which there are people with Indigenous ancestry. They don’t necessarily self-identify as Indigenous, but the Maroons of Jamaica. In particular I work with the Accompong Town Maroons. The Maroons are the descendants of people who would not be enslaved. They’re the folks who ran off, took off to the hinterland. Their oral histories, their community histories say that the very first Maroons were Indigenous people and they came and joined in with them. So their community stories are saying yes, we have Indigenous ancestry. And with their blessing I was able to go into the community and look at their genetic ancestry and their oral histories were right. People know where they come from. It also kind of makes sense. I mean it would defy logic that you can completely come into a new environment, new flora, new fauna and know what’s edible and what’s not. You know, the best way is just to ask the folks that are there. “Is that edible?” That’s what happened. These communities did join, and we see it in their ancestry. So I have done this work across the Caribbean and, again, beyond looking at just ancestry and where people have come from I’m also quite interested in what people do with this data. How are they using it? And I found there is a variety of ways. Sometimes people accept it. Sometimes people realize they’re not that interested, and other times it gives people the sort of a new perspective on life from their own histories. And I’ve kind of seen that replicated even in this room today. So talking about my work, let me give you a little glimpse of what it is to be a genetic anthropologist. This is a shot of fieldwork. Before I set foot in any community, in any other country, even in the lab, I have to get ethics approval from my home institution. If I am working another country I will go to like a Ministry of Health or some recognized body and then I go to the community. I get permission from the community to just be there, and then of course there is individual consent. So there’s many, many levels of being vetted. Many, many levels of ensuring that what you’re doing is at least okay to be in the community. Whether people say yes or no, that is truly up to them. I love it when they say yes, but I have run into some “no’s”. With our work we tend to prioritize the privacy of individuals so we recode data. We are very careful as to where our DNA samples go, who gets access to those data, and we do our best to ensure that participants know that their DNA is always theirs. They want it back, you know, we can give it back. As part of the biocultural aspects of my study, beyond just collecting samples, I also ask people about their families. I ask them about their knowledge because that really helps to interpret the data. I can’t just look at the genetic results and suddenly know what it all means. I need to know where it came from. I need to know what people think and what they understand. So I want to share just a snippet. It is, oh no, just a snippet. Okay. Oh and you can’t see the writing. So this is a bar chart. I will tell you what’s on the screen. This is a bar chart of mitochondrial capital groups, just biology primer, genetics primer. Mitochondrial DNA is the type of DNA that you inherit from your mother, and women pass it to future generations. It is excellent for understanding about your mother’s lineage. So your mitochondrial DNA is the same as your mothers as it was the same as her mother, and her mother, and her mother. If you are a woman and you have children, your children have your mitochondrial DNA. If you are a woman and you only have sons, good luck to you, but your you might have mitochondrial lineage actually ends with your sons. So this is an excellent way to look at one line within your family. In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t tell you a lot about your entire ancestry, but instead of just this line. For communities and individuals who have systematically been denied any sort of knowledge about their history, having just a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of idea of where you came from and how you are connected to others is better than nothing. I do study mitochondrial DNA. Okay. So with mitochondrial DNA, aside from its inheritance pattern, there are also certain genetic variance in it that we can categorize and sort of find that they are common in certain geographic areas rather than others. So that allows us to create these genetic families, we call them haplogroups. And these haplogroups are common in some parts of the world, not so common in other parts of the world. So many of you all have, or some of you all at least have done some on your own ancestry and you might fall into haplogroup A, B, C, or D, maybe even X. Those are haplogroups that tend to be really common in the Americas. If you have that haplogroup it means you have ancestry or one of your ancestors this from the Americas. It is not necessarily indicative of how you self-identify. It’s a whole another whole other topic. Okay so in this bar chart which you can’t really see but I will tell you what was here, I have combined the mitochondrial families or haplogroups from some of my work as well as work of others that’s published in the literature. So if we look on this first column. I’ll just tell you what each set of columns say. That first column, those are mitochondrial haplogroup frequencies from the Anglophone Islands. So that island chain that I had marked on a couple of slides ago it’s from those communities. The second one are Jamaican Maroons. The third column is Jamaica. Then the Garifuna of Saint Vincent. And then the First People’s Community in Trinidad. Next is from a series of studies, probably some Dr. Vilar has been involved with from Puerto Rico. The next column is my own work, Afro-Puerto Ricans. The second to last would be data from Cuba, and the very last column is from the Dominican Republic. What I want to draw your attention to is not so much the height of the bar charts or the lines, but that — I guess it is reddish up here. The reddish bar represents Indigenous ancestry. And what you’re going to see is that across the Caribbean it’s there. It may not be in high frequencies, but it is there. You’ll also notice that it varies. There are some islands where there are a lot of Indigenous ancestry, along with other types of ancestry. In others, not so much. And this is really a product of a complex history. It is also a product of who I sampled, or who was sampled. This is something we always have to consider before we apply any sort of results to an entire community. For me what is very interesting is looking at Indigenous ancestry for example in the First People’s community. You’ll see that red bar is pretty high. It’s comparable to what you see in other islands like Puerto Rico and to some extent Cuba. So there are some things that went on in these islands that result in patterns like this and for me that’s kind of where the interesting part comes in, and that’s also where the biocultural, emphasizing cultural, aspects come in as well because I need to be able to understand genetic data. And to do that I use both community histories and other lines of evidence. The last of the data slide I want to show you. This is called an Admixture plot. It can be really complicated to look at but the broad thing I want you to notice is the large blocks of color. When we do ancestry or Admixture work, we always compare whoever it is we’re studying to a reference group. So in this case on the bottom what you’re seeing are reference groups and for ease of understanding and I have it categorized by broad continental regions. So this big red block of color is typically what you see or assigned to Africans or African populations. This light blue color is typically what’s assigned here in this plot for East Asian groups. The two Caribbean communities that I looked at are all the way on the end. So you see STV, that’s for Saint Vincent’s and TRI is for Trinidad. And what you’ll notice is that those communities, these are both Indigenous communities, they look a little bit different. While they all have a mixture, you see that the patterns are different. This is really as a result of different histories, different ways that colonialism affected these communities. When I give results back to study participants, I don’t necessarily give it to them in this form, but I do my very best to help them understand that it is not the numbers so much that adds up because you could actually look at the numbers here and sort of add everything up and get a percentage. So it’s not so much that someone is 13% Native American that matters. It’s really just the general category of what shows up. The numbers can and do change depending if you change the reference groups, the numbers will change. It doesn’t mean it’s less precise or more precise. It just means that you are looking at a statistical analysis. What is really most important is what shows up and how that makes sense to you in your own communities history. So I want to wrap up my time with one last quote. So this comes from a research assistant I worked with in Saint Vincent and Indigenous midcentury woman and what she said, “Suddenly everyone is Carib- before it was an insult to say that someone was ‘Carib’…” She went on to explain that it means that to call some Carib, you’re calling them promiscuous basically. Then she said, “But seeing you here studying this and talking about our history makes people less ashamed to be Carib.” For me, this was a really moving moment. This is the whole reason I got into doing genetics, to be able to look at our own histories and different ways, to be able to rewrite them in ways that make a little more sense. And it’s at that moment that really drives home the point that genetic ancestry is a tool. It is a tool that can be used to divide. It is also a tool that can be used to build, to think of ourselves as united in ways that we might not have understood before. As always, there are lots and lots of people to thank. First and foremost, I always think my participants. Without them none of this research is possible. I have a bunch of collaborators who have been very useful and then finally we thank the folks that pay the bills. Thank you.

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